The Triple Team: The Jazz turn up the defense and channel Jordan Clarkson’s emotions to get road win vs. Spurs

Utah Jazz's Rudy Gobert (27) talks to Rudy Gay during the first half of the team's NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-104 win over the San Antonio Spurs from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Excellent defensive performance

Last week, we saw the Spurs get a win over the Jazz by torching the Jazz’s guards. While the Spurs didn’t have Dejounte Murray on Monday due to COVID protocols, this was a much better all-around performance.

They did it in two important ways. First, they hardly ever fouled. Sending the Spurs to the line just five times all game for nine total free throws is really impressive; even better, the Spurs only made four of those free throws. That just means that all of those easy points aren’t on the table. The Spurs have to get them from the field.

The Jazz also locked down the defensive glass; the Spurs only had nine offensive rebounds despite missing 55 shots. Keeping a team off the glass to that extent is a major, major win — again, it’s shutting off a source of easy points.

That means that the Spurs have to score all of their points from the “run of play,” so to speak. And in the end, that’s just really hard to do against this Jazz team, especially when both Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside are playing that well.

So many times in this game, the Spurs “noped” out of drives to the rim because there was a very tall and long guy standing there. Other times, the Spurs rushed a chance that looked good, because they were scared of that shot block. I love this one: Jakob Poeltl just misses this wide-open layup, and I think it’s because he thinks Gobert’s in the vicinity. Then later, Gobert’s able to get the strip and start a Jazz fast break.

Heck, this layup never even touches the rim because of Gobert’s length.

Jazz front office folks talk about the “48 minutes of rim protection” that those two guys provide. I’ve been a little bit bearish on that because I want the Jazz to have the versatility to answer different looks in the playoffs. But in the regular season, on nights like tonight? There’s no doubt that it’s extremely useful to have that option.

2. Jordan Clarkson’s emotions

Jordan Clarkson was the game’s leading scorer tonight, with 23 points that went a good deal towards soaking up Donovan Mitchell’s shots in his absence. But goodness, it was emotionally taxing.

First, Clarkson didn’t get a couple of whistles go his way, including some rookie nerves from Blanca Burns, refereeing her first NBA regular season game tonight. He was extremely frustrated with this, at one point ripping off his headband in frustration and pounding the court with his fist.

Then, a courtside fan crossed a line. At one point, Clarkson said, the fan challenged him to a fight, then taunted him for not accepting the challenge. “What are you going to do about it?,” Clarkson said the fan yelled. At that point, Clarkson had to be pulled back into the timeout huddle by his teammates.

The fan was asked to leave the game by security.

It’s actually fascinating how different Clarkson’s personality is on and off the court. Off the court, there’s not a more laid-back individual alive. He is incredibly nice, happy to drink a beer from time to time. He is just incredibly comfortable in his own skin, more than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s honestly sort of inspirational.

On the court, though? He’s focused. Doesn’t talk much. Beats himself up for his mistakes, or missed shots. At his best, I think he gets into “flow,” where he reads his defender and gets to the rim, fights for rebounds and loose balls, and impacts the defensive end of the floor with his energy. At his worst, I think he can get into his head a little bit.

It’s the kind of emotional variety that’s made him a fan favorite. The guy who takes a lot of shots and scores inefficiently can be the target of ire for a lot of fan bases, and Clarkson gets some of that, but less than you’d think. He’s one of the coolest players that’s ever played for the Jazz, and certainly makes the Jazz more interesting to watch, from up close and afar.

3. The difference between a real and fake no-look pass

There are two types of no-look passes.

One is performative, what I call the “fake no-look pass.” Gobert got some attention for this pass last week in which he turns after making the pass, even though he was really looking Bogdanovic’s way for most of the time while getting the ball.

Then there are real, truly difference-making no-look passes. This is as good as it gets: Gobert’s look to the wing three moves the defender, leading to a wide-open one for Rudy Gay in the corner. It’s absolutely beautiful.

It’s rare to see a center capable of the latter, but Gobert’s ability to make the right read in that situation is actually a huge deal. It turns low-percentage post-up or contested layup chances into high-percentage open threes, and can go a long way towards creating a high-powered offense.

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